Improve Your Creative Sessions [Yes! And Blog 144]

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”


John Steinbeck, Author

You can make an idea generation session run more effectively with these tips.

Generate ideasThis week, I ran a creative thinking workshop for a client. I showed them how to build the climate and introduced tools for creating solutions. They were particularly keen to know how they might best apply the tools in their own workshops.

Instead of pre-designing a session on this latter topic, I ran an “ad lib” session. That means the participants identify the concerns they have about running a session and I answer them. This is something I enjoy doing as an experienced facilitator and like most improvisation work, is very rewarding.

I thought it would be useful to write an article on this topic for you and so here are some of the concerns and my responses. Please see Yes! And blog 136  for a selection of tools you might use.

1. How to get people to attend: Schedule a few short sessions rather than a long single session. Provide a brief that explains the purpose and outcomes and make it sound interesting.

2. People are silent, no ideas are forthcoming: This usually occurs as a result of inhibition (e.g. different status) or participant style. To overcome this, start with a “Vent”, i.e. have everybody generate ideas individually without speaking and note these down. Once these are exhausted, share and record them one at a time.

3. People are not participating: This usually arises when people work in teams that are too large. Break the group in to pairs, threes or fours to do an exercise and it becomes very hard not to participate.

4. One or two people are dominating: Use the same strategy as for silence and non-participation and mix the teams for every exercise. It is much easier for other people to speak if the team size is small and the others only have to bear the dominant person for one session.

5. People are sceptical: At first, use techniques that are quite structured and explain the reason for using them. Once these begin to produce ideas people will become less sceptical. Furthermore, if a tool produces a “weird” or “crazy” idea, challenge the group in teams of three to find a practical application for it. Sceptics want to see results; give them that.

6. Energy levels fall off: The best way to avoid this is to ensure a mix of exercises and teams to change continually their physical and mental state. If possible, have people go for a walk to do an exercise at least once. If you use an “energising exercise,” make sure that you can relate it to the previous or next topic otherwise scepticism will creep in.  Finally, avoid presentations. Time your agenda so there is a physical activity after lunch.

7. Maintain pace and avoid waffle: Keep exercise timing snappy and drive the group forward. Appeal to different senses, have people draw or make things as well as talk.

8. How to sum up effectively?: As facilitator, do you need to sum up? Why not have people in the group sum up and reach their own conclusions. You can do this in interesting ways, e.g. write a newspaper leader or even a headline and sub heading; Write a Haiku; (Please see Yes! And blog 66  for an article); draw a picture; write a Twitter message in 140 characters; have people sum up to each other in pairs.

9. Too many ideas, unable to pull it altogether: What a great issue to have! First, ensure you number all the ideas so that you have an idea of the quantity. At this point, some people like to look for similar ideas and group them. Personally I have never found that very useful if there are a lot of ideas. Instead, I use the Dot Choice tool, (Please see Gorilla 134 in the Gorilla Archive here for a full explanation), providing people with a number of sticky dots to choose their favoured ideas. Once people have chosen the ideas, the group identifies if any of those with dots are similar (so the dots can be added together) and we discuss why ideas have been chosen.


Preparation is key when you are running idea generation sessions for the first time. Know your outcome, design the session so that you know what will happen, and vary the exercises and team sizes. As you become more experienced you can “ad lib” around this script.


Use the tips given here and see how your next session works.

To Close

I am often asked if I run “brainstorming” sessions (or “brain showers” as some people call them) because it is one of the primary ways that organisations try to stimulate creative thinking. The concept is to form a group, ask people to call out their ideas, record them and use these ideas to stimulate further ideas.

This tool tends to favour those who are good at generating ideas quickly, probably because it was developed for use in the advertising industry. However, if you observe a session, with its speed of idea generation, you will often see that those who prefer to think a little longer and those who are a little more cautious about sharing ideas tend to withdraw from the activity.

One solution I have read is to exclude these people from the brainstorming session. This may make the brainstorming session work better but is a major loss as those excluded may often have the best ideas. My aim is to strive always to use tools and techniques that are inclusive. I hope you will too.

Have a great week.

John Brooker I Yes! And. Think Innovatively.

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